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BEACH VOLLEYBALL

Blanton Rediscovers Winning

June 16, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

The years seemed like decades, individual tournaments seemed like entire seasons as things got steadily worse for Dain Blanton.

An Olympic gold medal-winner at the Sydney Olympics, Blanton became a forgotten man on the sand with a post-2000 ledger that included one tournament championship on the now-defunct Beach Volleyball America tour and zero titles in 25 other tournaments.

But the road back to recognition continued Sunday at the San Diego Open as Blanton teamed with Jeff Nygaard to win his first Assn. of Volleyball Professionals tournament since May 2000, defeating Matt Fuerbringer and Casey Jennings, 21-16, 13-21, 15-12.

The title was the second in two weeks for Blanton and Nygaard, who won an international tournament in Greece before returning to the U.S. last week. Diminishing in the distance are some of his less-memorable finishes -- 33rd with Carl Henkel at last year's Manhattan Beach Open, 57th with Henkel at an international tournament in Portugal and far from first a number of times with, take your pick, Henkel, Chip McCaw or Scott Ayakatubby.

"There were some tough times," Blanton said. "I'm coming off my worst year in finishes, even worse than my first year. But I feel like I'm a little better, a little wiser. If you work hard enough, things start to come your way."

Blanton split up with Eric Fonoimoana a year after they won at the Olympics and struggled until he found Nygaard, a former All-American at UCLA who was on the U.S. Olympic indoor teams in 1996 and 2000.

Blanton's dive-and-dig defense is as good as ever while Nygaard has quickly established himself as one of the AVP's top blockers in only his third season on the beach. For the record, Nygaard can also attack, delivering 16 kills in the championship match, including the third-game clincher down the left side.

Fuerbringer and Jennings played well despite Fuerbringer spraining his left ankle in a semifinal, but the duo couldn't avoid losing in the championship for the third time in four AVP events.

For the women, Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs won their first title this season, defeating Dianne DeNocechea and Nancy Mason, 21-17, 21-14.

McPeak and Youngs won five AVP and four international titles last year, but had been shut out in three previous AVP tournaments, losing twice in the championship.

McPeak and Youngs ended that trend Sunday and McPeak won her 66th career tournament, one short of tying the record held by Karolyn Kirby, who retired in 2000.

"That 66 wasn't easy," said McPeak, 34. "It's been in the back of my head for a little while. It's a little bit of pressure but I know we'll be able to break the record."

The victory was particularly important after McPeak and Youngs' collapse in the Hermosa Beach Open championship June 8 against Misty May and Kerri Walsh. McPeak and Youngs held a 14-12 edge in the deciding third game but May and Walsh scored four consecutive points to win.

"We were both really depressed," Youngs said. "It took us a couple days [to recover]."

May and Walsh won the first three AVP tournaments but skipped the San Diego Open to play in an international tournament in Greece, where they finished third on Sunday.

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